Standing in his race car in Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Victory Lane, milk dripping down his face and onto the leaves of the winner’s wreath around his neck, Dario Franchitti pointed toward the sky — dedicating his third Indy 500 win in the past six races to his late friend, last year’s Indy winner Dan Wheldon.
A few moments later, wearing — in tribute — the same kind of white sunglasses he used to tease Wheldon for wearing, Franchitti invited Wheldon’s young widow, Susie, to join him and his wife, actress Ashley Judd, in the traditional winner’s Victory Lap, sitting on the back of a convertible Corvette.
You could hear the crowd’s raucous cheers in a surreal, audio-only version of “The Wave” as the car slowly drove around the massive 2.5-mile speedway to the delight of nearly 300,000 fans.
The most dominant IndyCar driver of his generation was all smiles.
This win felt so good. And that was OK.
Franchitti had triumphed after 500 treacherous miles of racing in near-record 91-degree heat Sunday — prevailing after a dramatic last-lap attempt to pass him in which a split-second maneuver gave him victory instead of disaster.
Beyond that, he survived seven months of saddening “why?” over the loss of his close friend Wheldon, who was killed in the IZOD IndyCar season-finale at Las Vegas in October.
“I think racing is emotion, and life is emotion as well, racing just exemplifies it,’’ said Franchitti.
“Vegas was the lowest of the lows, and I think the reason we all got back in the cars and all the mechanics got back in pit lane and all the fans came back to the races, is for days like today, the emotion of days like today. That’s why I got back in the car.
“There’s not a feeling like standing in Victory Lane. There isn’t.’’
And recently at Indianapolis, no one has been to Victory Lane more than the 39-year old Scot, who also won the world’s most famous race in 2007 and 2010.
His win Sunday was remarkable in that it was the second-hottest race in history and boasted a record number of lead changes (35) with new engines and chassis turning their first competition laps on an oval.
Franchitti’s No. 50 Target-sponsored Honda prevailed over the Chevrolets, which had won the first four races of the season. His Target Chip Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon finished second and their friend Tony Kanaan third after Takuma Sato crashed on the final lap trying to overtake Franchitti for the lead.
For all the hype and concern about a long list of unknowns heading into the race, Franchitti once again proved himself a “gamer” on the biggest stage — someone you can count on when you can’t count on anything else.
And yet with four IZOD IndyCar championships — including the last three — and having just added his name to an elite list of 10 drivers with at least three Indy 500 titles, Franchitti still doesn’t consider himself “of the best.”
He told of the thrill he had before the race posing for a photo with Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser — only hours later officially joining them on the list of three-time winners.
The photo op was a good diversion, a fitting send-off for Franchitti, who had openly spoke of the emotion of returning to Indianapolis without Wheldon. And in the end, Wheldon’s three closest friends finished 1-2-3.
Joy and victory, at last, overwhelmed the feeling of sadness and loss.
“I don’t think it could have been a better result for Dan,’’ said third-place finisher Kanaan.
Then he added with a laugh, “Wherever he (Dan) is right now, he’s definitely making fun of Sato, I can tell you that, and he’s giving Dario a tap on the back for sure, and he was going to call me a wanker that I didn’t win this thing.
“I’m glad this is over,’’ Kanaan said. “I’m glad that now I hope we can all move on and just remember Dan the way Dan was: a happy guy, a wonderful friend.’’
And a competitor, who would have appreciated Sunday’s Indy 500 — and whose likeness on the famed Borg-Warner winner’s trophy will now forever share a spot with his friend Franchitti etched on either side.